August 26 – Cough, Cough

Today’s factismal: Fears of the DTaP vaccine in the 1970s and 1980s have led to the rise of vaccine-resistant whooping cough today.

This year’s Disneyland measles outbreak has shown what happens when a lot of people opt out of vaccinations; one infected person goes into an areas with a lot of unvaccinated people and before you know it, you have an outbreak. The same thing happened last year when an Amish missionary brought measles home to 383 people in Ohio. And it happened in 2013, when a Baptist missionary gave the disease to 25 members of his congregation in Texas. But there is a deeper story to the rise of this once-vanquished disease, and that can be discovered in whooping cough.

Whooping cough used to be an endemic disease; it was everywhere. Named for the “whoops” of air that victims would breathe in after prolonged coughing fits, whooping cough (or pertussis, as the medicos prefer to call it) is a bacterial disease that spreads through droplets sprayed out during the coughing. Pertussis patients would cough so hard that they would break ribs, lose bladder control, and even tear open the arteries in their neck! It wasn’t uncommon for a whooping cough victim to vomit or faint after a fit. And hard as it was on young children and the elderly, it was frequently fatal for infants; about 2% of all infants who came down with whooping cough died from the disease. That was some 1,000 children each year!

After the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles cases dropped dramatically (Data from CDC)

After the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles cases dropped dramatically
(Data from CDC)

Naturally, any disease that awful was researched pretty thoroughly. In 1906, doctors discovered the bacillus responsible for whooping cough. And in 1925, the first vaccine was used to control the disease. Soon the vaccine was being widely used and the number of pertussis cases was headed down after hitting a peak in 1931. In 1942, a more effective version of the vaccine was combined with vaccines to fight diphtheria and tetanus to create the first DTP vaccine. By1970, there were only 1,000 cases of the disease and it looked as if it might follow smallpox into obscurity. And then something awful happened. A few infants were reported to have suffered seizures after being injected with the vaccine. These isolated cases were widely reported on the evening news and a new syndrome was identified: pertussis vaccine encephalopathy.

Pertussis cases dropped after the vaccine was introduced in 1925 but have risen lately due to unvaccinated people (Data from CDC)

Pertussis cases dropped after the vaccine was introduced in 1925 but have risen lately due to unvaccinated people
(Data from CDC)

In response to the reports, many parents either spread out the DTaP schedules or stopped giving their children the vaccine altogether. Despite multiple follow-up investigations and numerous studies showing that the whole cell vaccine was safe to use, suspicion lingered on. A different form of the vaccine was created, one that used just fragments of the bacterium instead of the whole thing, but the damage was done; many people skipped the vaccine entirely. At first, the effect of the delays and opt-outs was subtle. Pertussis levels remained fairly steady through the late 1970s and 1980s. But then it started a slow and steady rise. The disease was coming back. Worse, thanks to the spacing out of the vaccinations, a new variant of the disease had arisen – one that the vaccine couldn’t target! And, to add insult to injury, it was found that the new version of the vaccine wasn’t as effective as the original and needed more frequent booster shots. As a result, the number of whooping cough cases in the US has risen from about 1,000 each year to 28,000 each year, with no sign of stopping. Barring a new, more effective vaccine that targets both types of the bacillus, the number of pertussis cases each year and the number of infants that die from it is just going to continue to rise.

Preventing measles, polio, pertussis, and a host of other diseases is just this simple (Image courtesy CDC)

Preventing measles, polio, pertussis, and a host of other diseases is just this simple
(Image courtesy CDC)

That may be where we are headed with measles. Thanks to the people opting out of vaccinations, outbreaks are getting larger and more common. And thanks to those who only take one of the required two doses, a more virulent form of measles will arise. Measles, like pertussis will become vaccine-resistant and children will start to die again.

What can you do? First, get all of your vaccines and keep them current by taking the booster shots. Once you’ve done that, then head over to the Measles and Rubella Initiative:

August 25 – Storm of The Century

Today’s factismal: Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

There’s no doubt about it; 2005 was a record year for hurricanes. In the Pacific basin, there were 39 named storms, 20 hurricanes, 5 five major hurricanes. (Yes, they call them “typhoons”, but they are the same phenomenon.) In the Atlantic basin, there were 28 named storms, 15 hurricanes, and 7 major hurricanes. And one of those seven major hurricanes in the Atlantic basin was Katrina. Katrina would be the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, with a price tag of $108 billion and a death toll of 1,245. Though most of that damage centered on New Orleans, Katrina’s trail of devastation stretched from the Bahamas to Ohio. But New Orleans was the worst casualty. Plagued by run-down infrastructure and stripped of the delta by decades of channel dredging, the city was wrecked after the storm.

A building collapsed by Katrina (My camera)

A building collapsed by Katrina
(My camera)

At that, New Orleans got lucky with Katrina. Had the storm remained a 5, instead of dropping in intensity as it reached land, then the wind and debris damage would have been much worse. Had Katrina approached on the east side of new orleans, instead of the west, then the levees would have failed earlier and more conclusively. And had Katrina come on New Orleans during a Spring tide (an unusually high tide) instead of during low tide, even the French Quarter would have been inundated. But lucky or not, Katrina did more damage in less time than any other storm in US history.

The marks on this building show that it was searched and no bodies were found (My camera)

The marks on this building show that it was searched and no bodies were found
(My camera)

Much of the damage was inevitable. But much of it could have been avoided with better forecasts. What the meteorologists needed was more observations in order to give better predictions. What they needed was people like the members of the Citizen Weather Observer Program who send in reports about severe weather (and the other kind, too) that is then used to make better predictions. If you think that you’ve got what it takes to be a CWOP member, head over to:

August 24 – Getting Stoned

Today’s factismal: Chimpanzees have been stuck in the Stone Age for about 4,300 years.

It is no surprise to anyone today that animals use tools. Elephants use stepstools to get fruit. Fish crack clamshells on coral to get mussels. Birds drop turtles on stones to crack the shells open and kill playwrights. And gorillas use twigs and sticks to nab termites. But what is a surprise is that some animals may be further along the path of tool-making that we thought.

A family of chimpanzees using tools(My camera)

A family of chimpanzees using tools
(My camera)

Most animals’ tools are impromptu (like the fish and the coral) and relatively primitive (like the gorilla and the twigs). Very few show any indication of forethought and planning. The good thing about this sort of tool is that they can be very easy to find. The bad thing is that they don’t make very good tools because they wear out quickly and aren’t properly shaped. The solution to the problem is to use something that is easy to find, relatively durable, and can be shaped; the solution is to use stone. Humans made that discovery about 3,300,000 years ago in Lomekwi, Kenya. There humans started hitting one rock with another to form new tools (called knapping). Since this was a new art to them, they weren’t very good at it; it would take 700,000 years of practice before the hominins in the Olduvai Gorge came up with the idea of using steady pressure instead of a hard blow to create a sharper edge. Fast-forward to today and those simple stone tools have given way to integrated circuits and spaceships.

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants(My camera)

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants
(My camera)

Most chimpanzees live in East Africa, where the jungle is dense and the ground is rich and loamy; as a result, there aren’t many stones to be found. But a sub-group of chimpanzees lives in West Africa where the ground is rich in stones. And that group has been observed making and using stone tools. Interestingly, when archeologists explored a layer of soil that was about 4,300 years old, they found tools there that matched the ones that the chimpanzees were using today. The best explanation for that is chimpanzees are currently in their Stone Age.

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools (Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools
(Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

If you’d like to learn more about chimpanzees and maybe even see them using a few tools, why not join Chimp & See? This citizen science project is looking for people like you to watch their films and help them identify tool-using behaviors. To learn more, swing on over to:

August 23 – Mizzen The Mast

star clipperThere is nothing with quite the same beauty as a ship under sail. The calm grace of the massive white sails contrasted with the frantic shouting of the men as they pull the lines and sheets. The steady movement of the ship as she plows through the ever-changing waves. And the knowledge that the dance you are watching dates back more than ten thousand years and is responsible for modern civilization.

Ships created civilization because ships allowed humans to move around and mix. We did it mostly for trade. Murex shells (used to make purple and originally very, very expensive which is why it is a royal color) for gold. Wheat for cattle. And, most importantly, ideas for ideas. The Phoenician alphabet for Greek “democracy”.  Greek gods and mores for Etruscan ones. A heliocentric universe for secrets of chemistry.

Those trades continue today on the ocean of information known as the internet. Have you gone sailing today?

August 20 – Going With The Flow

Today’s factismal: “Plankton” means “a lot of floating critters”; “plankter” means “just one floating critter”.

There are many interesting and slightly disgusting facts about the water that fills our rivers, lakes, and oceans. There are jellies that feed on the chemicals coming from hydrothermal vents; the feeding must be good because the jellies can reach 160 feet long! And not everything lives off of chemicals; there are zombie worms that eat the bones of dead whales on the ocean floor. A little farther up in the water column, there are about a trillion fish living in the ocean, none of which get out to use the bathroom. Even worse, there are about one million bacteria and ten million viruses in every teaspoon of sea water. And that last set of disgusting critters is what is known in the ocean biz as plankton (from the Greek planktos for “drifter”).

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Plankton are little critters that are too small and weak to swim against the tide so instead they drift with it going wherever the currents take them. As is the case on land, most plankton get their energy from sunlight; these are known as phytoplankton because they act just like plants (phytos if you are Greek or a geek). The zooplankton are animals that nibble on other plankton and whatever else they can get their jaws around; interestingly, a lot of bigger animals spend at least a little time as zooplankton. These meroplankton include starfish, crustaceans, worms, and lots and lots of fish (who still don’t get out of the water to go to the bathroom). And then there are the bacteriaoplankton, little bugs that eat the leftovers of the other two groups which sometimes includes the dead members of the other two groups.

A small zooplankton, drifting along (Image courtesy Mikhail Matz, NOAA)

A small zooplankton, drifting along
(Image courtesy Mikhail Matz, NOAA)

And that leads us to what may the most interesting and slightly disgusting fact of all: we still don’t know where most of the plankton in the ocean live! Until recently, we thought that they were mostly confined to the near surface where the phytoplankton could get lots of sunlight and the zooplankton could get lots of phytoplankton. But that may not be true. As we have learned more about the types of places that life thrives, we have learned that life thrives in unexpected places. And the Plankton Portal wants your help to identify some of those places. By looking at pictures taken of sea water from different places in different oceans, you can see plankton floating around. And by identifying each plankter, you can help the oceanographers understand how nutrients and energy move around in the ocean, which will help them understand how life actually is lived here on planet Earth. To learn more about the project, swim to:

August 19 – Going, Going,…

Today’s factismal: Africa has gone a year without a new case of polio.

You want some good news? Some really, really good news? Africa has gone a full year without a new case of polio being diagnosed. That means that they are 1/3 of the way to being a polio-free zone. To put this into perspective, in 1988, when the current polio vaccination push began, there were 350,000 cases of polio each year in Africa. By 2013, that had dropped to 416 cases. And over the past year that has become none.

In 1900, polio was found in every country

In 1900, polio was found in every country

Last year, it was only found in two (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

Last year, it was only found in two (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

The amazing thing is that this drop has happened despite the widespread endemic trouble in Africa. Nine people doing polio vaccinations were shot to death in 2013. Boko Haram in Nigeria has called for vaccinators to be “punished” for “un-Islamic activities”. Somalia has been engaged in a long-running civil war that has made vaccinations difficult to come by. And refugee camps are natural breeding grounds for disease as groups of unvaccinated people from different regions mix together. And yet, despite having the deck stacked against them, the Africans have managed to reduce polio cases to zero.

A child in Chad receiving the polio vaccine (Image courtesy NIH)

A child in Chad receiving the polio vaccine
(Image courtesy NIH)

The Africans are traveling the same path that America went down in the 1950s, after Salk developed an effective polio vaccine. Before the vaccine, polio would kill more than 6,000 people each year in the US. By 1965, the threat of polio had become a distant and unregretted memory. Worldwide, the polio vaccine has saved about two million lives each year and kept another 750,000 from being paralyzed. To put it mildly, the vaccine is a blessing that has wiped out polio in all but three countries ((Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria). If you’d like to help make polio a memory in those three remaining countries, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

August 18 – Thar She Blows!

Today’s factismal: On average, a volcano erupts somewhere on Earth each week.

If you’ve been reading the news, then you may have seen an article about Cotopaxi, a volcano located near the capital of Equador. Right now, Cotopaxi is shooting plumes of ash seven miles up into the stratosphere and warming up the snow that covers its summit. Of the two, the snow is the more dangerous thing; when snow melts and mixes with volcanic ash, it can create a lahar which can roll downhill at up to 60 mph covering everything in a layer of steaming mud; it was a lahar that buried Pompeii and a lahar that destroyed Martinique.  But, worrisome as that is, the eruption itself is nothing unusual. There are about 1,500 volcanoes scattered across the globe and every week one or another of them erupts.

A fire fountain in Hawai'i (Image courtesy USGS)

A fire fountain in Hawai’i
(Image courtesy USGS)

Of course, some of the eruptions last longer than others. (For eruptions lasting longer than four years, seek your geophysicist’s advice.)  Stromboli has erupted at irregular intervals for the past thousand years or so but only for a  month or so each time.  But Mauna Loa has erupted almost continuously for at least 700,000 years. The one thing that eruptions have in common is that they are all different, thanks to the types of magma/lava involved and the location of the volcano. (Remember that it is magma when it is in the Earth and lava when it is on the surface.) A volcano with a hot, thin lava that spews into the air can create a fire fountain like the one at Mauna Loa. A volcano with a thick, cooler lava that erupts under water can create a phreatic explosion that blasts bits of the volcano for miles around, like Tambora did back in 1815. Right now, Cotopaxi looks more like a mini-Tambora than another Mauna Loa, but we never know.

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969 (My camera)

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969
(My camera)

And that’s why we watch volcanoes – so we can learn more and maybe predict what will happen next. If you’d like to do more than watch, then why not download the myVolcano app from the British Geological survey?